WADDY, Ky. — Twenty-five years ago, David Wilson commenced breeding a chicken meant to equal the finest birds grown in France.
In 1988, Wilson was selling squab to a restaurant in Louisville, Ky. Ed Garber owned that restaurant, and Garber had "a world view of food," Wilson says. "He had traveled the world several times, and he was aware of the very fine French chickens."
In France, chickens are sold under various government labels, which specify how the birds must be raised, fed and housed. There are dozens of labels, but the indisputable top of the heap is the poulet de Bresse, a chicken raised under exacting conditions in the Rhone-Alpes region of France.
What makes French chickens special? They are bred and fed for top flavor — "culinary quality," Wilson calls it — and not for efficiency, as American meat birds are. Everything about them from egg to table is studied to bring the biggest, best flavor to the diner.
Garber told Wilson to go to France. "That very first night, they took me to dinner at a relais (an informal roadhouse), and they had a wood-fired hearth," Wilson says. "They served me a chicken roasted on a spit over the fire, and I thought I'd died and gone to heaven."
Wilson's life had just changed.
To understand the difference between Wilson's chickens and most American chickens, we'll need a little background.
However they're raised, American meat birds are one of two basic crosses: the Cornish-Rock cross, a white bird, and the so-called Freedom Ranger, a red one. Both are bred to efficiently convert feed to meat; in the Cornish-Rock cross, the "feed conversion" is so efficient that it takes just a pound and half or less of feed to produce a pound of chicken. And they're ready to butcher in just 37 days.
"Folks have gotten so used to that baby chicken meat," Wilson says. "It lends itself well to artifice to introduce flavors" — he means marinades, sauces and so forth — "because it has none of its own. It doesn't lend itself to high-end cooking. A baby bird will never have much flavor."
The Freedom Ranger is a cross well-suited to pastured poultry production, but it's still a baby when butchered.
Made for the table
Today Wilson has the bird he wants, a French breed. Even before the egg is laid, it's a bird bred to eat well, an artisanal chicken raised with time-honored methods to increase its culinary quality.
"These are the ways that flavor arrives in chicken," Wilson says:
Start with genetics selected for high culinary quality and for "rusticity," or the ability of the chicken to thrive on its own, without special treatment. "It needs to be able to have enough strength to get up and go outside and run around and live like a chicken," he says.
Support those genetics with small flocks, low stress, ample room, sunshine and fresh air.
Let the bird grow slowly. "That 37-day bird is almost devoid of flavor. My birds grow to about 12 weeks, or 85 days," he says.
Feed an all-vegetable diet. Wilson's chickens get wheat, non-genetically modified corn, oats and rice, as well as distiller's dry mash — a perk of his Kentucky location. "I try to use grains that will help develop an interesting flavor profile," Wilson says.
Use a processor willing to deal with small producers, and be sure they air-chill the birds. "Air-chilling means the birds don't go through a chlorinated ice water bath to chill them," Wilson says. "That reduces cross contamination. And the USDA allows up to 7 percent water gain in processing. Do you want to pay chicken prices for water?"
You'll recognize one of Wilson's chickens because its skin will be very thin, with almost no fat — "thin skin is genetically linked to culinary quality," Wilson says. The bird will be longer and narrower than conventional chickens, with much longer drumsticks that have more meat — that's the result of the birds walking around and using those muscles, he says. Wings, too, will be bigger, "because they fly around," Wilson says.